David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

How Elon Musk Envisions Transforming Mars into Another Earth

Elon Musk has a pretty ambitious plan to get humans to live on Mars in 40 years. Here's the tech that'll make that happen. 

The gradual transformation of Mars into a habitable planet. Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

Elon Musk has a pretty ambitious plan to get humans to live on Mars in 40 years. The key part, as he announced yesterday at the International Aeronautical Conference, is creating technology that would bring the cost of the journey down and bring enough people and supplies to Mars to create a self-sustaining civilization.

In order to do that, Musk and his private space development company SpaceX need to bring the cost of a Mars mission down from $10,000,000,000 per person to $200,000. They identified 4 main ways to do that: 1) creating fully reusable spacecraft; 2) refueling them in orbit; 3) producing propellant on Mars, and; 4) using the right propellant.

SpaceX is tackling the reusability problem by building the rocket in 3 separate sections: the spaceship, the rocket booster, and the propellant tanker. They’re rethinking the design components of all 3 of those sections, too. For starters, the rocket needs to be bigger. WAY bigger:

Spaceship scale.jpg

See that tiny dot at the bottom right of the ship? That’s a person. Credit: SpaceX

That might seem excessive, but not to Musk. “The rocket needs to be about this size to fit 100 people in the pressurized section, plus luggage, cargo, propellant plants, iron foundries, pizza joints. We need to carry a lot of cargo.”

Musk theorized that SpaceX most likely be able to expand the crew section and bring closer to 200 people to minimize the number of trips. He also clarified that they’ll flat-pack all the cargo to maximize speed and efficiency. Then he broke down the math: “If a civilization needs 1 million people, [if we bring] 100 people per ship that’s 10,000 trips.” How exactly is all that stuff supposed to fit? Like this:

Spaceship Interior Screencap.jpg

Spaceship Interior Screencap2.jpg

The interior of the Mars spaceship. Credit: SpaceX

“In order to make people want to go, it’s gotta be really fun,” Musk said about the design. “We have to design it like people see in the movies. Not cramped. Lots of room to move.”

Aside from being a fun design, the rocket is being built out of carbon fiber. SpaceX chose carbon fiber because it’s a durable material that wouldn’t require a separate liner, decreasing the mass of the overall ship. But carbon fiber tends to crack at a large scale, so “it’s a huge technical challenge to make cryogenic tanks out of it,” Musk admitted. “It’s just really hard to make huge carbon fiber structures that can do [all the things we need it to] and carry incredible loads.”

But his team is trying. And they’ve already built the first tank.




1) The crew standing outside the Mars rocket tank. Credit: Space X. 2&3) The inside of the Mars rocket tank. Credit: SpaceX

“This is the hardest part so we wanted to tackle it first,” Musk said of the tank. “Carbon dioxide and oxygen will need to be gassified [sic] though tanks into the engine. That powers the ship.” That’s much simpler than the Falcon 9 rocket’s system, which uses five ingredients: nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and an ignition chemical. The team worked 7 days a week to get the tank done in time for IAC. Thus far, their efforts are paying off. “Initial tests look positive,” Musk said. “We haven’t seen any leaks.”

As encouraging as that is, the tank will still need to prove its reusability. “Spaceships last 30 years,” Musk explained. “They’ll take 12 to 15 flights at most, so we need to maximize the cargo and reuse the booster and tanker a lot.” The tanks will require between 3 and 5 trips filling trips from separate propellant tankers as the spaceship sits in orbit, waiting for the Mars rendezvous.

The next part of the ship SpaceX is working on is the rocket booster. The booster will act “like a javelin thrower,” Musk said, directing and accelerating the ship to 8,650 km/hour or 5,375 mph. Once it’s kicked the spaceship off towards Mars, it’ll come back to Earth in “20 minutes,” according to Musk.

The booster will be still be a “high-pressure turbo pump fed with cool proponent,” Musk said, but it’ll be simpler to build than the tanks because SpaceX is essentially scaling up their Falcon 9. The biggest difference is that it’ll be made of carbon fiber.

Remember, all of those pieces have to get back from Mars in order to make this plan feasible. Again, Musk’s solution is to build a propellant plant on Mars using methane as the ship’s primary fuel source. Here’s the breakdown of how that’s going to happen:

methane plant diagram.jpg

Credit: SpaceX

So now that we've seen the details of Musk's 4-step plan to get people on Mars, the real question is how much will the whole system cost. Musk has a chart for that, too:

Credit: SpaceX

“That is quite expensive,” Musk admits. He expects to "generate decent cash flow from launching satellites” with SpaceX and also ferrying items to the International Space Station. There’s also private sector interest as well, prompting Musk to admit that he knows this project will ultimately be a huge public-private partnership. “As we show that this dream can be someday made real, the support will snowball over time.”

That support is likely, as Musk’s dream doesn’t end at Mars. He hopes his rocket system will take us even further than that. “We have the basic system,” he said, “provided we have filling stations along the way. That gives access to the greater solar system.” Musk theorized about visiting Saturn’s Enceladus moon, Jupiter’s Europa moon, and even past Pluto and into deep space. “We’d need a different system for interstellar journeys,” Musk admitted, but it’s in the back of his mind.

Europa (Resized).jpg

What the Mars rocket would look like on Europa. Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

Musk is so dedicated to the idea that “the main reason I’m personally accumulating assets is to fund this.”

SpaceX began in 2002 “with a carpet and a mariachi band,” as Musk put it. It’s now a pioneering space company at the forefront of technical innovation. It will find a way to make us a multiplanetary species. The only question is when.

In case you thought he was kidding about the mariachi band. Credit: SpaceX

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

A temporary marriage makes more sense than marriage for life

Most marriages end in resentment. Why should longevity be the sole marker of a successful marriage?



Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt attend the WSJ Magazine 2015 Innovator Awards on November 4, 2015. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WSJ)
Personal Growth

In November 1891, the British sexologist Havelock Ellis married the writer and lesbian Edith Lees. He was 32 and a virgin. And since he was impotent, they never consummated their union. After their honeymoon, the two lived separately in what he called an open marriage. The union lasted until Lees’ death in 1916. 

Keep reading Show less

Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…